Death Penalty: Justice, or Just Too Far?

Jason Brennan,

Release Date
April 14, 2015


Politics & Policy

The death penalty has been a topic of fierce debate for decades. From basic pros and cons lists to statistics supported cost analysis, the different arguments for or against capital punishment are well documented. But what happens when an innocent person is convicted and sentenced to die for a crime they did not commit?
Even if you think that some people deserve to die, governments make mistakes. That means having to accept the unacceptable; innocent people will die and that can’t be undone.
Professor Jason Brennan presents an unabashed look at the facts and faces and asks, “How many more innocent people have to die before we abolish the death penalty once and for all?”

Innocence Project (Organization): a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
Death Penalty Information Center (Organization): a national non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.
Witness to Innocence (Organization): only national organization in the United States composed of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their family members.

There’s Still No Evidence Executions Deter Criminals (Article): Despite extensive research on the question, criminologists have been unable to assemble a strong case that capital punishment deters crime.

Death Penalty Information Center (Article): List of wrongly executed and posthumously pardoned inmates.
Trial by Fire (Article): Wrongful imprisonment and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham
Yes, America, We Killed an Innocent Man (Article): Wrongful imprisonment and execution of Carlos DeLuna

In 1983, an 11-year-old North Carolina girl was raped and suffocated, her body later found in a soybean field. Two mentally disabled half-brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, quickly became targets of the investigation. After hours of interrogation, McCollum and Brown each confessed. They were convicted and sentenced to die.
Sounds like well-served justice. Public officials in North Carolina and across the country praised their death penalty conviction. But here’s the problem: McCullom and Brown were innocent. After 30 years on death row, DNA evidence revealed another man, who’d lived near the scene and had a long record of sexual assaults, was the murderer. He was never investigated during the case.
We nearly executed two men for a crime they did not commit. That shows just how dangerous the death penalty really is. Even if you think that some people deserve to die, governments make mistakes. That means having to accept the unacceptable: innocent people will die. That can’t be undone and we cannot compensate for it the way we can with mistaken imprisonment. What if the death penalty doesn’t make us any safer? It hasn’t deterred crime more than life sentence without parole, nor have we seen a spike in murder rates following its abolishment in different states.
Innocent people can and have been wrongfully sentence to die for many reasons. Take Curtis McCarty. He was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer’s daughter. After 22 years in prison he was exonerated. He returned home to his terminally ill mother and now adult son, and a granddaughter he’d never held. 22 years of Curtis McCarty’s life were stolen from him because a forensic chemist with the Oklahoma City Police Department either intentionally altered or lost evidence related to the case. That same chemist participated in over 3,000 other cases; 23 resulted in death sentences. Does that make you feel safe? How many more innocent people should we let die before we abolish the death penalty once and for all?